Roman Bignor

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:06 am

Ganymede mosaic, Bignor

 

In contrast with the north and west of the island, the Roman way of life was more firmly entrenched in the south and east of Britain.  One feature of this was the greater number of villas, rural buildings in Roman style that ranged from the relatively humble to the decidedly palatial.  Most of these evolved over a considerable period.  One such is Bignor Roman Villa, perched on a slight slope in the South Downs National Park in West Sussex.  It is surrounded by countryside and farmland – just as it was more than 1600 to 1900 years ago, when it developed into a wealthy farmstead.  At its peak, probably sometime in the 4th century, the villa complex at Bignor covered an area of almost 2 hectares (about 5 acres) bounded by a wall, with main buildings containing more than 60 rooms enclosing a rectangular courtyard garden.  Most of it has long since disappeared, but the remains of part of the north range and a bathhouse have been uncovered from the ground, and these contain some of the best-preserved Roman mosaics in Britain.

Bignor Roman Villa

 

Bignor’s history is unknown.  We don’t know who lived there, or even what it was called.  Like most place-names in South East England, ‘Bignor’ is Anglo-Saxon – it means something like ‘hill brow of a man called Bicga’.  Possibly, the area was farmed before the Roman invasion of 43 AD; Iron Age artefacts have been found, including arrowheads and pottery.  There is evidence of a late 1st century Romano-British farm with a ditched enclosure on the site, a timber-framed house in the late 2nd century and the first stone building, with just four rooms, by the middle of the 3rd century.  It was later in the 3rd and 4th centuries that the villa was extended, the grand mosaics added and the full courtyard villa emerged.  This contained several dwelling suites, which experts believe probably accommodated different groups of an extended family.  Presumably, workers – and slaves – would have lived in separate buildings, probably not made of stone. 

Summer Dining Room, Bignor Roman Villa

We can make an educated guess that whoever owned Bignor had some business nous and good connections.  They were probably local, but it is also possible that they moved from elsewhere in the Empire.  Favourable soil and climate would certainly have contributed to increasing wealth, too, along with a good location.  The farm was (and still is) situated just off Roman Stane Street, which connected the busy port and market town of Noviomagus Regensium (Chichester) with Londinium (London).  Noviomagus was just half a day’s walk away; a little further on was the magnificent palace at Fishbourne.  Perhaps the farm supplied the palace, as well as the local market.  So how did it all end?  You cannot help but wonder what happened to the people who made their lives in this lovely spot.  Did they see the collapse of their world coming and plan for it, or did it catch them unawares?  Were they taken captive by raiding Saxons, or was their fate less dramatic?  Is their DNA still floating around in the local gene pool, were they forced to go elsewhere – or did they perish and leave no descendants?  We can speculate that the farm could not survive harsh economic conditions following the end of Roman rule in the early 5th century, the collapse of traditional markets and, ultimately, social breakdown.  There is some evidence of building decay, or lack of maintenance, at Bignor, but nothing yet to indicate disaster, or sudden departure.  Perhaps a story will emerge if more of the site is excavated.  Whatever took place, the buildings most likely deteriorated, walls and roofs fell in, materials were probably taken away and reused, and the fabulous floors disappeared under the good Sussex turf until, one day centuries later, in 1811, farmer George Tupper’s plough hit a piece of stone.

Longest mosaic in Britain

The artefacts unearthed at Bignor should tell us something.  There have been some intriguing finds, including a beautiful gold ring with a red gemstone.  This has been described as ‘Merovingian’ on one website.  The Merovingians were a Frankish dynasty that ruled in what is now France and part of Germany between the 5th and 8th centuries – and the owner of the ring would surely have been of high status.  It may have belonged to the owner of Bignor – or it may not.  It was found near a wall; was it lost accidentally, or did it come off the wearer’s finger in a struggle?  There are some fascinating objects included in a nice little museum at Bignor, such as an iron stylus – so someone could write – and, disturbingly, the sad skeleton of an infant girl.  What was her short story?  Probably, it was a natural, albeit tragic, death – but it felt a little uncomfortable gazing down on her pitiful remains inside a glass case.

Skeleton of an infant found at Bignor

Excavations took place following Tupper’s discovery and the site soon became a tourist attraction.  Buildings were erected (on Roman foundations) in the early 19th century to protect the remains.  These are typical flint and thatch agricultural buildings of the time and are of historical value themselves.  The Tupper family still farm some 2,000 acres at Bignor and still own and run the villa as a tourist attraction.  The mosaics are stunning – the up-market floor coverings of their day. The piece of stone that George Tupper’s plough ran into, and which resulted in the discovery of Bignor Roman Villa, turned out to be a hexagonal water basin, or piscina, which contained a fountain.  It is in a large room known as the summer dining, or Ganymede, room.  The floor is covered in striking mosaics – imagine how graceful it would have looked.  One of the mosaics in the room depicts Ganymede, a beautiful youth being carried off by an eagle to become cupbearer to the Gods.  His Phrygian cap will be familiar to anyone who has seen images of the God Mithras.  Adjacent rooms contain mosaics with geometric designs, representations of the seasons, gladiators, the Goddess Venus and a dolphin mosaic that includes three letters – TR – perhaps the signature of the designer.  In the Winter Dining Room is an exposed section of hypocaust, the underfloor heating system in which air heated by a furnace circulated and warmed the room above.  One mosaic originally ran the entire length of the north wing of the villa and is some 79 feet (24 metres) long – according to the guidebook it “is thought to be the longest on display in Britain.”  Surely, they know whether it is or it isn’t? Originally, it would have been much longer.

The covering buildings at Roman Bignor

What is for certain is that the mosaics are lovely and, given their age, the colours are astonishingly bright.  I have made them a little more vibrant for the photos here, but not much. Imagine how they would have looked all those centuries ago when people lived in the villa.  The tesserae – the tiny blocks of material used to make a mosaic – were apparently sourced locally – chalk and limestone for light colours, Purbeck marble for blues and greys, sandstones for reds, yellows, orange.

  • Medusa mosaic, Bignor
  • Venus mosaic
  • Exposed hypocaust at Bignor Roman Villa
  • Representation of Winter mosaic at Bignor Roman Villa
  • North corridor mosaic at Bignor
  • Ganymede mosaic, Bignor

The Romans loved their baths.  At Bignor, the bathhouse was in the south range, or wing, and a mosaic there depicts the head of Medusa, the Gorgon with snakes for hair whose gaze would turn a man to stone, and who was beheaded by Perseus. A scary thought for bath time, I would have thought, but she was undoubtedly a classic pinup in her day.

Bignor's bathouse

Bignor is an unpretentious place to visit, relaxed, with friendly, helpful and engaging staff.  You can take a picnic, or there is a small tearoom (which sells good ice creams).  On the day ABAB called, reenactors were present giving displays of weaponry – not only Roman, but medieval too.  They clearly committed a lot of time and money to their subject and knew their stuff.  I imagine it is a convivial community to be part of.  And it was fun to watch.

My dad used to tell me about Bignor Roman Villa. It was one of those places we were going to visit, but never did. Oddly enough, it was my son, his grandson, who took me there.  Sadly, they never met, but I reckon they would have got on a treat.  If I believed in that kind of thing, I’d like to imagine dad smiling down the day we went and asking, “What took you so long?”

I’ll leave you with a picture of Roman Stane Street near Bignor Hill and a link to the website of Bignor Roman Villa.

58 thoughts on “Roman Bignor”

  1. A very interesting post Mike. A place I would like to visit but probably never will so it’s nice to see it through your eyes. I love the mosaics, especially the one of Ganymede, it’s beautiful 🙂

  2. Wow, I hadn’t even heard of Bignor; this site looks amazing and those mosaics are so well preserved. Definitely one to add to the list when I’m that way again 🙂

  3. A fascinating story about a place I had not heard of. I share your discomfort about gazing down at bits of people in museums. When, I wonder, to bodies become archaeological specimens?

    1. I have often wondered about that, Derek. I guess the answer is ‘anytime’ – with the exception of recorded burials. Huge amount of archaeological activity along the old Western front, for example.

  4. Like you, I have wanted to go to Bignor, but I like you, have yet to make it. It sounds, and looks from your photos, an amazing place.
    I did quite a lot of research for my novel, Vengeance of a Slave, including looking at photos of Roman Villas and examining their plans, but it was mainly on line. It was fascinating to find out how these people lived, though.

  5. Thank you for another interesting and anecdotal post, Mike. I think that those mosaics do deserve to be much better known. was aware of Bignor, but I have never really spent much time in that area. Maybe it’s about time that omission was rectified. Thanks again, Colin H.

  6. Hi Mike – thank you for this … my brother took me there when I came back from South Africa, or perhaps on a visit with my Ma, but that was over 30 years ago … and it’s a breath of fresh air now … how well conserved it looks, as too carefully excavated. Then the apparently delightful layout and welcoming for visitors … I must go down again … your photos and descriptions are wonderful – thank you – cheers Hilary

  7. Another fascinating addition to your collection of places to visit in Britain Mike. I knew of Bignor, but never been there, and I’m also wondering why I never have. Your dad was right.

    1. Thanks, Malc. Well – I don’t know why I hadn’t visited before. But I suspect the answer is somehow related to being unable to rove the nation at will, casually dropping in and out of fascinating places 🙂 🙂

  8. That’s just gone onto my list of local places to visit. I don’t know that I was aware of it before, unlike Fishbourne, which I went to on a school visit more than 50 years ago.

  9. What a story, Mike. Thank goodness George’s plow hit the tile. I doubt many of us can truly comprehend building in the 4th century, especially with artists who can create beautiful mosaics.

  10. Fascinating spot. And you have the same thoughts that I do about the people who once lived here and what happened to them. I’ll have to go back and visit the website for this site and see what else they can add to your marvelous description.

  11. My first thought when I read that George Tupper struck stone was poor him. Was he thinking, ‘Oh great, this will be an end to farming and the place will be swarming with archeologists.’ But it seems Mr. Tupper’s family still farm many acres and also run the villa. Good job! And you’re entire article was fascinating. Those mosaics!

  12. A cracking read, Mike. I did a Latin module for my degree which covered quite a bit of Roman culture at the time of Augustus, and it was fascinating. This looks an ideal place to go for some great insights into Roman life, even if the truth about the people who lived there and what happened to them must remain hidden in the shadows. The mosaics look superb, even better than those on show at Chedworth Roman Villa, a place we used to visit when we lived in Buckinghamshire. Bignor’s little museum houses some intriguing finds, although I can understand exactly how you felt about the remains of the poor little girl. From what I’ve learned about this kind of thing and by visiting sites like Vindolanda in Northumberland, it seems that young children were sometimes kept in the home, buried somewhere within the dwelling, although the reasons why aren’t clear. One theory is that some children born under questionable circumstances and who died young were quietly squirrelled away to prevent a scandal, while another idea suggests that the remains of dearly loved ones could be kept close by in order to maintain a connection with the departed. Either way, it’s all very poignant, as are your final thoughts on your father and son, both so interested in Bignor, and your long-awaited trip there in some way bringing you all together at the remains of this ancient homestead where centuries of human dramas played out. I don’t doubt that your dad looked on as you and your son explored the villa, and that he heartily approved. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Ali. I had read something similar about young children being buried near residences. Interestingly, I gather that until relatively recently infants – primarily babies that did not survive long – had been buried in unmarked graves at the local church.

      1. That’s right. In fact, there was a fascinating Time Team episode in which they excavated Ebbs Nook in Beadnell on the Northumberland coast, where there had been a 12th century chapel. They found a lot of neonate burials to one side, and it seems the parents had burying young babies that probably hadn’t been baptised yet as close to hallowed ground as they could. It was really quite moving, and at one point it looked as though Tony Robinson was fighting back the tears. So yes, it seems as though this kind of thing has been going on in one way or another throughout history.

        1. By sheer coincidence, Alli, I was talking to an elderly neighbour whose older brother died as an infant. She told me her father put his son in a box and took him up to the church, where he buried him next to the south wall. That’s what they did – and not long ago. There are, I believe, many such burials there.

  13. Love the mosaics. Something that has always fascinated me is how Roman mosaics all over the Empire seem to follow the same overall style. I suppose there would have been something similar to a mosaic designers guild and apprentices would have learned from masters and all that good stuff.

      1. Yes, now that you mention it I seem to remember seeing an episode from Up Pompei when the lady of the household was choosing a new design for the mosaic of a new fountain they were commissioning and she was leafing through a pamphlet of sorts.

  14. Very interesting! I want to mention that you say the dolphin mosaic has three initials on it, but then only give two — TR. If it’s a typo I thought you would like to correct it.

    1. It’s not actually a typo, Dorothy. I just didn’t get round to explaining that it’s an abbreviation for TER. I got distracted! I’ll sort it out. if you want to get in touch directly, you know you can do this via the contact page?

    1. You’d cope that far south, Fraggle? You’d certainly do a great job photographing those mosaics. Of course, you’d need to take in Fishbourne and a few other places too, while you’re there.

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